It’s to The Dark Horse’s great benefit that this is the rare inspirational true-life story that doesn’t shoehorn a fountain of relentless optimism for the future into the proceedings. Based on the real-life story of the Maori speed-chess player and coach Genesis Potini, it’s a story of mental illness and manhood that manages to strike a difficult balance between sentiment and gritty honesty. Writer-director James Napier Robertson chronicles the uplifting story of Potini’s time with the Eastern Knights, an after-school chess program for at-risk youth, but The Dark Horse isn’t focused on the Eastern Knights, necessarily. It’s a film about Potini, and the private and public weight he carried.
The film opens on an uneasy image: covered in a quilt, Genesis (or “Gen,” pronounced as “Gene”) wanders the streets of Gisborne, New Zealand in a fog, singing aloud to himself in the pouring rain. Robertson slowly pulls back to reveal that Gen is wandering down the street to the concern and scorn of passerby, before wandering into a chess store, where he plays a vocal game against himself and wanders outside to police attention. Gen lives with severe bipolar disorder, to the extent that without proper medication he’s barely able to function. He’s been in and out of hospitals, and temporarily takes shelter with his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), the apparent chief of a local biker gang, until Ariki pays Gen off to make himself scarce.
Gen is a man of good heart; as played by Cliff Curtis in a largely understated and resonant turn, he’s so rattled by his own volatility that he spends most of his lucid hours trying to simply get by with as much dignity as he can muster. He’s turned on to the Eastern Knights through a friend, and soon Gen has spent his brother’s money for a house on a series of refurbished chess boards for the children, in hopes of taking them to a country-wide junior chess championship. Right away, Gen encounters resistance from the supervisors, more hopeful of just giving the kids a place to go (“They don’t need games and tournaments. They don’t even have fuckin’ parents”), but Gen refuses to abandon the idea. There’s redemption in this for a group of kids done a grave disservice by the world. There’s also redemption in it for Gen.
In part because of the film’s R rating, there’s an authenticity to so many of the small details of poverty in Gisborne from which Robertson is unwilling to shy away. In particular, this extends both to the cruelties of Gen’s day-to-day life (a particularly heartbreaking sequence sees Gen overwhelmed with stress and anxiety to the point where he starts playing a manic game of chess on the hood of his car until he’s assaulted by a local), and to the realities of the gang that Ariki runs. This is especially true for Mana (James Rolleston), Ariki’s son who Gen takes to as a kindred, wounded spirit even as Ariki sternly (if reluctantly) prepares him to wear the family patch.
It’s in the battle for Mana’s young life that The Dark Horse finds its dramatic thrust, even if the moments that linger most are some of the smaller observations of Gen’s life, as when he has to hide his bag of belongings in the bushes outside of the practice space. Rolleston does fine work as a kid too gentle for the world into which he’s born, and too aware of what he thinks is the only way forward for him. In his interactions with Curtis, however, it’s the latter who leaves the strongest impression, Curtis adopting the quality of a paternal figure for a man who struggles to keep himself together. Gen draws a painful analogy to his own experiences at one point to reach Mana (“you ever been pissed on?”), and there’s a sincerity to Curtis’ delivery of Gen’s wisdom that “you are not what they’re makin’ you think you are” that transcends cliché.
One confrontation, between Gen and Ariki (Hapi cuts an imposing but vulnerable figure as a conflicted gang leader), sees Ariki making explicit what so much of The Dark Horse sees quietly: “World doesn’t want him. World doesn’t want me, sure as fuck didn’t want you.” Robertson stages this conversation and so many others in intimate, close-quarters shots, and this observational quality helps guide the film through some of its more genre-friendly beats, from a ragtag group of precocious children for light (if world-weary) comic relief to a climactic “big game” setting. But the grainy photography situates the film in a different place from your average Disney effort, as do the frequent scenes that intercut the chess-club story with the stark realism of Mana’s ongoing gang initiation. The film’s actual climax is also telling in this regard. Life can get better, and The Dark Horse acknowledges this. But there are ceilings for how much better it can get, ceilings set by class and genetics and other such basic divisions. Sometimes the small victories can mean the most, but they don’t solve every problem. Most of survival is just a matter of sheer will.